See Food and an Oriole Doubleheader

The rain and clouds have at last departed.  With blue skies and sunshine to remind us just how wonderful a spring afternoon can be, we took a stroll at Memorial Lake State Park in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to look for some migratory birds.

Indigo Bunting
Though running just a few days later than usual, Indigo Buntings have arrived to begin nesting.
Common Loon
This Common Loon dropped by Memorial Lake during a storm several days ago and decided to stay awhile.  It’s a species that winters in oceanic waters along the Atlantic seaboard and nests on glacial lakes to our north.
Common Loon
Because of the low level of turbidity in Memorial Lake, visibility is good enough to allow this benthic feeder an opportunity to see food before expending energy to dive down and retrieve it.  Favorable foraging conditions might be part of the reason this bird is hanging around.
Shoreline Vegetation at Memorial Lake
Clear Water-  Memorial Lake is one of the few man-made lakes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to be appropriately vegetated with an abundance of submerged, floating, and emergent plants.  As a result, the water from Indiantown Run that passes through the impoundment is minimally impacted by nutrient loads and the algal blooms they can cause.  Buffers of woody and herbaceous growth along the lake’s shorelines provide additional nutrient sequestering and help prevent soil erosion and siltation.
Baltimore Oriole
The breeding season has begun for Neotropical migrants including this Baltimore Oriole, which we found defending a nesting territory in a stand of Black Walnut trees.
Orchard Oriole
Along the edge of the lake, this Orchard Oriole and its mate were in yet another stand of tall walnut trees.
Common Nighthawks
Early in the season and early in the day, we started seeing Common Nighthawks flying above wooded areas north of the lake at 4 o’clock this afternoon.  After all the raw and inclement weather they’ve experienced in recent days, the warm afternoon was probably their first opportunity to feed on flying insects in quite a while.
Common Nighthawks
Early birds, Common Nighthawks feeding at 4 P.M.

What?  You thought we were gonna drop in on Maryland’s largest city for a couple of ball games and some oysters, clams, and crab cakes—not likely.

The Fog of a January Thaw

As week-old snow and ice slowly disappears from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed landscape, we ventured out to see what might be lurking in the dense clouds of fog that for more than two days now have accompanied a mid-winter warm spell.

York Haven Dam Powerhouse
After freezing to a slushy consistency earlier this week, the Susquehanna is already beginning to thaw.   Below the York Haven Dam at Conewago Falls, the water is open and ice-free.
Mallards and a pair of American Wigeon on a frozen lake.
On frozen man-made lakes and ponds, geese and ducks like these Mallards and American Wigeon are presently concentrated around small pockets of open water.
American Robin in a Callery pear
During the past ten days, American Robin numbers have exploded throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.  The majority of these birds may be a mix of both those coming south to escape the late onset of wintry conditions to our north and those inching north into our region as early spring migrants.
American Robin
The January thaw has melted the snow from lawns and fields to provide thousands of visiting robins with a chance to forage for earthworms.
Cooper's Hawk
A visit by this young Cooper’s Hawk to the susquehannnawildlife.net headquarters garden sent songbirds scrambling…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…but did nothing to unnerve our resident Eastern Gray Squirrels,…
Eastern Gray Squirrel
…which promptly went into tail-waving mode to advertise their presence.
Red-tailed Hawk
But earlier in the week, when heavy snow cover in the rural areas surrounding our urbanized neighborhood made it difficult for rodent-eating raptors to find food, we received brief visits from both a Red-tailed Hawk…
Red-shouldered Hawk
…and this young Red-shouldered Hawk, an uncommon bird of prey most often found in wet woods and other lowlands.
Eastern Gray Squirrel
To escape notice during visits by these larger raptors, our squirrels remained motionless and commenced performance of their best bump-on-a-log impressions.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight.
Unimpressed, each of our visiting buteos remained for just a few minutes before moving on in search of more favorable hunting grounds and prey.
Early Successional Growth
As snow melted and exposed bare ground in fields of early successional growth, we encountered…
White-crowned Sparrow
…a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, most in first-winter plumage…
American Tree Sparrow
…and at least a dozen American Tree Sparrows.  During the twentieth century, these handsome songbirds were regular winter visitors to the lower Susquehanna region.  During recent decades, they’ve become increasingly more difficult to find.  Currently, moderate numbers appear to be arriving to escape harsher weather to our north.
Adult Male Northern Harrier
What could be more appropriate on a foggy, gray evening than finding a “gray ghost” (adult male Northern Harrier) patrolling the fields in search of mice and voles.

If scenes of a January thaw begin to awaken your hopes and aspirations for all things spring, then you’ll appreciate this pair of closing photographs…

Pileated Woodpecker in Silver Maple
The maroon-red flower buds of Silver Maples are beginning to swell.  And woodpeckers including Pileated Woodpeckers are beginning to drum, a timber-pounding behavior they use to establish breeding territories in habitats with suitable sites for cavity nesting.
Skunk Cabbage
In wet soil surrounding spring seeps and streams, Skunk Cabbage is rising through the leaf litter to herald the coming of a new season.  Spring must surely be just around the corner.

Piscivorous Waterfowl Visiting Lakes and Ponds

Heavy rains and snow melt have turned the main stem of the Susquehanna and its larger tributaries into a muddy torrent.  For fish-eating (piscivorous) ducks, the poor visibility in fast-flowing turbid waters forces them to seek better places to dive for food.  With man-made lakes and ponds throughout most of the region still ice-free, waterfowl are taking to these sources of open water until the rivers and streams recede and clear.

Common Mergansers
The Common Merganser is a species of diving duck with a primary winter range that, along the Atlantic Coast, reaches its southern extreme in the lower Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds.  Recently, many have left the main stem of the muddy rivers to congregate on waters with better visibility at some of the area’s larger man-made lakes.
Common Mergansers Feeding
Common Mergansers dive to locate and capture prey, primarily small fish.  During this century, their numbers have declined along the southern edge of their winter range, possibly due to birds remaining to the north on open water, particularly on the Great Lakes.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, some of these cavity-nesting ducks can now be found year-round in areas where heavy timber again provides breeding sites in riparian forests.  After nesting, females lead their young to wander widely along our many miles of larger rivers and streams to feed.
Several Common Mergansers Intimidating a Male with a Freshly Caught Fish
The behavior of these mergansers demonstrates the stiff competition for food that can result when predators are forced away from ideal habitat and become compressed into less favorable space.  On the river, piscivores can feed on the widespread abundance of small fish including different species of minnows, shiners, darters, and more.  In man-made lakes stocked for recreational anglers with sunfish, bass, and other predators (many of them non-native), small forage species are usually nonexistent.  As a result, fish-eating birds can catch larger fish, but are successful far less often.  Seen here are several mergansers resorting to intimidation in an effort to steal a young bass away from the male bird that just surfaced with it.  While being charged by the aggressors, he must quickly swallow his oversize catch or risk losing it.

With a hard freeze on the way, the fight for life will get even more desperate in the coming weeks.  Lakes will ice over and the struggle for food will intensify.  Fortunately for mergansers and other piscivorous waterfowl, high water on the Susquehanna is expected to recede and clarify, allowing them to return to their traditional environs.  Those with the most suitable skills and adaptations to survive until spring will have a chance to breed and pass their vigor on to a new generation of these amazing birds.

Want Healthy Floodplains and Streams? Want Clean Water? Then Make Room for the Beaver

I’m worried about the beaver.  Here’s why.

Imagine a network of brooks and rivulets meandering through a mosaic of shrubby, sometimes boggy, marshland, purifying water and absorbing high volumes of flow during storm events.  This was a typical low-gradient stream in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in the days prior to the arrival of the trans-Atlantic human migrant.  Then, a frenzy of trapping, tree chopping, mill building, and stream channelization accompanied the east to west waves of settlement across the region.  The first casualty: the indispensable lowlands manager, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).

Beaver Traps
Nineteenth-century beaver traps on display in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Soon after their arrival, Trans-Atlantic migrants (Europeans) established trade ties to the trans-Beringia migrants (“Indians”) already living in the lower Susquehanna valley and recruited them to cull the then-abundant North American Beavers.  By the early 1700s, beaver populations (as well as numbers of other “game” animals) were seriously depleted, prompting the Conoy, the last of the trans-Beringia migrants to reside on the lower Susquehanna, to disperse.  The traps pictured here are samples of the types which were subsequently used by the European settlers to eventually extirpate the North American Beaver from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during the 1800s.

Without the widespread presence of beavers, stream ecology quickly collapsed.  Pristine waterways were all at once gone, as were many of their floral and faunal inhabitants.  It was a streams-to-sewers saga completed in just one generation.  So, if we really want to restore our creeks and rivers, maybe we need to give the North American Beaver some space and respect.  After all, we as a species have yet to build an environmentally friendly dam and have yet to fully restore a wetland to its natural state.  The beaver is nature’s irreplaceable silt deposition engineer and could be called the 007 of wetland construction—doomed upon discovery, it must do its work without being noticed, but nobody does it better.

North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
North American Beaver diorama on display in the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.  Beavers were reintroduced to the Susquehanna watershed during the second half of the twentieth century.
A beaver dam on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
A beaver dam and pond on a small stream in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Floodplain Wetlands Managed by North American Beavers
Beaver dams not only create ponds, they also maintain shallow water levels in adjacent areas of the floodplain creating highly-functional wetlands that grow the native plants used by the beaver for food.  These ecosystems absorb nutrients and sediments.  Prior to the arrival of humans, they created some of the only openings in the vast forests and maintained essential habitat for hundreds of species of plants as well as animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.  Without the beaver, many of these species could not, and in their absence did not, exist here.
The beaver lodge provides shelter from the elements and predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Their newly constructed lodge provides shelter from the elements and from predators for a family of North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes Visit a Beaver-managed Floodplain in the lower Susquehanna valley
Floodplains managed by North American Beavers can provide opportunities for the recovery of the uncommon, rare, and extirpated species that once inhabited the network of streamside wetlands that stretched for hundreds of miles along the waterways of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Great Blue Heron
A wintering Great Blue Heron is attracted to a beaver pond by the abundance of fish in the rivulets that meander through its attached wetlands.
Sora Rail in Beaver Pond
Beaver Ponds and their attached wetlands provide nesting habitat for uncommon birds like this Sora rail.
Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed in Beaver Pond
Lesser Duckweed grows in abundance in beaver ponds and Wood Ducks are particularly fond of it during their nesting cycle.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a Beaver Pond
Beaver dams maintain areas of wet soil along the margins of the pond where plants like Woolgrass sequester nutrients and contain runoff while providing habitat for animals ranging in size from tiny insects to these rare visitors, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis).
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.
Sandhill Cranes feeding among Woolgrass in a floodplain maintained by North American Beavers.

Few landowners are receptive to the arrival of North American Beavers as guests or neighbors.  This is indeed unfortunate.  Upon discovery, beavers, like wolves, coyotes, sharks, spiders, snakes, and so many other animals, evoke an irrational negative response from the majority of people.  This too is quite unfortunate, and foolish.

North American Beavers spend their lives and construct their dams, ponds, and lodges exclusively within floodplains—lands that are going to flood.  Their existence should create no conflict with the day to day business of human beings.  But humans can’t resist encroachment into beaver territory.  Because they lack any basic understanding of floodplain function, people look at these indispensable lowlands as something that must be eliminated in the name of progress.  They’ll fill them with soil, stone, rock, asphalt, concrete, and all kinds of debris.  You name it, they’ll dump it.  It’s an ill-fated effort to eliminate these vital areas and the high waters that occasionally inundate them.  Having the audacity to believe that the threat of flooding has been mitigated, buildings and poorly engineered roads and bridges are constructed in these “reclaimed lands”.  Much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed has now been subjected to over three hundred years-worth of these “improvements” within spaces that are and will remain—floodplains.  Face it folks, they’re going to flood, no matter what we do to try to stop it.  And as a matter of fact, the more junk we put into them, the more we displace flood waters into areas that otherwise would not have been impacted!  It’s absolute madness.

By now we should know that floodplains are going to flood.  And by now we should know that the impacts of flooding are costly where poor municipal planning and negligent civil engineering have been the norm for decades and decades.  So aren’t we tired of hearing the endless squawking that goes on every time we get more than an inch of rain?  Imagine the difference it would make if we backed out and turned over just one quarter or, better yet, one half of the mileage along streams in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to North American Beavers.  No more mowing, plowing, grazing, dumping, paving, spraying, or building—just leave it to the beavers.  Think of the improvements they would make to floodplain function, water quality, and much-needed wildlife habitat.  Could you do it?  Could you overcome the typical emotional response to beavers arriving on your property and instead of issuing a death warrant, welcome them as the talented engineers they are?  I’ll bet you could.

Photo of the Day

Green Frog on Christmas
It’s been a green Christmas at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  Among thick growth of Lesser Duckweed and other aquatic plants in the garden ponds, the Green Frogs and their tadpoles remain active.  The water’s open…still no ice here.

Flamingos and a Hurricane

During the past two weeks, over 150 American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) have been reported in the eastern half of the United States, well north of their usual range—northern South America; Cuba, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean Islands; and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  They are also found on the Galapagos Islands.  Prior to being extirpated by hunting during the early years of the twentieth century, American Flamingos nested in the Everglades of Florida as well.

The recent influx of these tropical vagrants into the eastern states is attributed to Hurricane Idalia, a storm that formed in the midst of flamingo territory during the final week of August.  Idalia got its start over tropical waters off Yucatan before progressing north through the Gulf of Mexico off Cuba to make landfall in the “Big Bend” area of Florida.

Track of Hurricane Idalia.  (NOAA/National Weather Service/National Hurricane Center image)

Birds of warm water seas regularly become entangled within tropical storms and hurricanes.  In most cases, it’s oceanic seabirds including petrels, shearwaters, terns, and gulls that seek refuge from turbulent conditions by remaining inside the storm’s eye or within the margins of the rotating bands.  The duration of the experience and the fitness of each individual bird may determine just how many survive such an ordeal.  As a storm makes landfall, the survivors put down on inland bodies of water, often in unexpected places hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline.  Some may linger in these far-flung areas to feed and gain strength before finding their way down rivers back to sea.

For birds like American Flamingos, which don’t spend a large portion of their lives on the wing over vast oceanic waters, becoming entangled in a tropical weather system can easily be a life-ending event.  American Flamingos, despite their size and lanky appearance, are quite agile fliers.  When necessary, some populations travel significant distances in search of new food sources.  Some closely related migratory species of flamingos have been recorded at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet.  But becoming trapped in a hurricane for an extended period of time could easily erode the endurance of even the strongest of fliers.  And once out over open water, there’s nowhere for a flamingo to come down for a rest.

It appears probable that, during the final week of August, hundreds of American Flamingos did find themselves drawn away from their familiar tidal flats and salty lagoons to be swept into the spinning clouds and gusty downpours of Hurricane Idalia as it churned off the Yucatan coast.  Despite the dangers, more than 150 of them completed a journey within its clutches to cross the Gulf of Mexico and land in the Eastern United States.

Amy Davis in a report for the American Birding Association compiled a list of American Flamingo sightings from the days following the landfall of Hurricane Idalia.  We’ve plotted those sightings on a satellite image of the storm.

Locations of American Flamingo sightings in the days following landfall of Hurricane Idalia, August 30 through September 7, 2023.  Numbers of birds in the plotted flock are indicated.  Those flocks marked with an asterisk contained a bird ringed with a leg band marking it as a member of the Ria Largartos population in Yucatan.  Click the image to enlarge.  (NOAA/GOES-16 base image of Hurricane Idalia landfall)

The majority of the flamingos that survived this harrowing trip found a place to put down along the coast.  But as the reader will notice, a significant number of the sightings were outside the path of the storm in areas not reached by even the outermost bands of clouds.  Flamingos in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky/Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were found at inland bodies of water, most on the days immediately following the storm’s landfall.  The lone exception, the Pennsylvania birds, were discovered a week after landfall (but may have been there days longer).  How and why did these birds find their way so far inland at places so distant from the storm…and home?  And how did they get there so quickly?  The counterclockwise rotation of the hurricane wouldn’t slingshot them in that direction, would it?

Let’s have a look at the surface map showing us the weather in the states outside the direct influence of Hurricane Idalia during the storm’s landfall on August 30, 2023…

Note the pair of cold fronts along the Appalachians by 7 A.M. E.S.T. (8 A.M. E.D.T.).  In the  hours following Idalia’s landfall, these fronts had begun slowly creeping through the areas where the inland flamingos were subsequently found.  (NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Prediction-Weather Prediction Center image)

Now check out this satellite view of the storm during the hours following landfall…

"Flamingo Highway"
The blue lines mark the approximate locations of the two cold fronts, the “spoilers” that helped steer Idalia out to sea. The pink arrows mark the “flamingo highway”, strong southwest to northeast winds blowing between the cold fronts along the inland edge of Idalia.  (GOES-16 imagery from Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Click the image above to play a GIF animation of GOES-16 satellite photos showing Idalia after landfall and the strong “flamingo highway” winds between the fronts.  (It’s a big file, so give it a little time to load.)  You’ll also note the ferocious lightning associated with both Huricane Idalia and Hurricane Franklin.

Did the inland flamingos catch a ride on these stiff “flamingo highway” winds?  If not, they may have had a little help from a high pressure ridge that became established over the southern Appalachians as Idalia crept out to sea.  The clockwise rotation of this ridge kept a similar flow over the “flamingo highway” for much of the four days that followed.

An American Flamingo circling to land in a farm pond near St. Thomas, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
An American Flamingo circling to land in a farm pond near St. Thomas, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
American Flamingo in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, following Hurricane Idalia.
Its a long way from Yucatan to central Pennsylvania.  The survivors of the storm were largely at the mercy of the winds that carried them.  The good news for this bird…not a single flight is feather missing.
An American Flamingo at the foot of the Appalachians.
An American Flamingo at the foot of the Appalachians in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
An American Flamingo on a farm pond near St. Thomas, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  This bird is just one of at least 150 that arrived in the Eastern United States courtesy of Hurricane Idalia.
American Flamingo in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
In deep water, American Flamingos feed by shuffling their feet to stir up benthic invertebrates, plankton, algae, and plant matter.  The flamingo that was accompanying this bird apparently shuffled its feet into a Snapping Turtle, which promptly latched onto its leg and injured tendons and other tissue.  Following surgery earlier today, the bird remains in hospital.
American Flamingo feeding.
To retrieve their fare from the bottom, flamingos roll their bill upside down, then swish it back-and-forth.
Finally, they raise their heads and upright their bills to expel water and debris while simultaneously filtering out the morsels of edibles for consumption.
American Flamingo in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
To conserve body heat while under the shade of clouds, this American Flamingo in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, would stop feeding,…
American Flamingo in Pennsylvania conserving heat under cloud cover.
…then it would tuck its head between its wings.  Flamingos will also retain heat by standing on one leg while raising the other into the insulating cover of their belly feathers.

For vagrant birds including those carried away to distant lands by hurricanes and other storms, the challenges of finding food and avoiding hazards including disease, unfamiliar predators, and extreme weather can be a matter of life and death.  For American Flamingos now loafing and feeding in the Eastern United States outside Florida, the hardest part of their journey is yet to come. They need to find their way back south to suitable tropical habitat before cold weather sets in.  The perils are many.  Theirs is not an enviable predicament.

Sorry Pinky, but you can’t stay on the farm forever.

A Visit to a Beaver Pond

To pass the afternoon, we sat quietly along the edge of a pond created recently by North American Beavers (Castor canadensis).  They first constructed their dam on this small stream about five years ago.  Since then, a flourishing wetland has become established.  Have a look.

A Beaver Pond
Vegetation surrounding the inundated floodplain helps sequester nutrients and sediments to purify the water while also providing excellent wildlife habitat.
A beaver lodge.
The beaver lodge was built among shrubs growing in shallow water in the middle of the pond.
Woolgrass in a beaver pond.
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) is a bulrush that thrives as an emergent and as a terrestrial plant in moist soils bordering the pond.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A male Common Whitetail dragonfly keeping watch over his territory.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer perched on Soft Rush.
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Blue Dasher dragonfly seizing a Fall Field Cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus).
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting Cardinal Flower.
A Spicebush Swallowtail visiting a Cardinal Flower.
Green Heron
A Green Heron looking for small fish, crayfish, frogs, and tadpoles.
A Green Heron stalks potential prey.
The Green Heron stalking potential prey.
A Wood Duck feeding on Lesser Duckweed.
A Wood Duck feeding on the tiny floating plant known as Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor).
A Least Sandpiper feeding along the muddy edge of a beaver pond.
A Least Sandpiper poking at small invertebrates along the muddy edge of the beaver pond.
Solitary Sandpiper
A Solitary Sandpiper.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
A Solitary Sandpiper testing the waters for proper feeding depth.
Pectoral Sandpiper
A Pectoral Sandpiper searches for its next morsel of sustenance.
A Sora rail in a beaver pond.
The Sora (Porzana carolina) is a seldom seen rail of marshlands including those created by North American Beavers.  Common Cattails, sedges, and rushes provide these chicken-shaped wetland birds with nesting and loafing cover.

Isn’t that amazing?  North American Beavers build and maintain what human engineers struggle to master—dams and ponds that reduce pollution, allow fish passage, and support self-sustaining ecosystems.  Want to clean up the streams and floodplains of your local watershed?  Let the beavers do the job!

One of Nature’s Finest: The Cardinal Flower

It may be one of the most treasured plants among native landscape gardeners.  The Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) blooms in August each year with a startling blaze of red color that, believe it or not, will sometimes be overlooked in the wild.

Cardinal Flower on a Stream
Cardinal Flower is most often found in wet soil along forested bodies of water.  The blooms of this shade-loving species may go unnoticed until rays of sunshine penetrate the canopy to strike their brilliant red petals.

The Cardinal Flower grows in wetlands as well as in a variety of moist soils along streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  Shady locations with short periods of bright sun each day seem to be favored for an abundance of color.

Cardinal Flower and Great Blue Lobelia
Cardinal Flower in bloom in a riparian forest along the Susquehanna.  To its right is its close relative, Great Lobelia, a plant sometimes known as Great Blue Lobelia or Blue Cardinal Flower.
Cardinal Flower in a wet bottomland woods.
Cardinal Flower in a wet bottomland woods.
The Cardinal Flower can find favorable growing conditions along stream, river and lake shores.
The Cardinal Flower can find favorable growing conditions along stream, river, and lake shores.  Even though they are perennial plants, their presence along such waters often seems temporary.  Changing conditions cause them to suddenly disappear from known locations, then sometimes reappear at the same place or elsewhere nearby.  Some of this phenomenon may be due to the fact that stressed plants can fail to bloom, so they easily escape notice.  When producing flowers during favorable years, the plants seem to mysteriously return.
Cardinal Flowers along a wave-swept shoreline light up the greenery of erosion-controlling riparian vegetation with glowing red color.
Cardinal Flowers along a wave-swept shoreline light up the greenery of erosion-controlling riparian vegetation with glowing red color.

The Cardinal Flower can be an ideal plant for attracting hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other late-summer pollinators.  It grows well in damp ground, especially in rain gardens and along the edges streams, garden ponds, and stormwater retention pools.  If you’re looking to add Cardinal Flower to your landscape, you need first to…

REMEMBER the CARDINAL RULE…

Cardinal Flower plants are available at many nurseries that carry native species of garden and/or pond plants.  Numerous online suppliers offer seed for growing your own Cardinal Flowers.  Some sell potted plants as well.  A new option is to grow Cardinal Flowers from tissue cultures.  Tissue-cultured plants are raised in laboratory media, so the pitfalls of disease and hitchhikers like invasive insects and snails are eliminated.  These plants are available through the aquarium trade from most chain pet stores.  Though meant to be planted as submerged aquatics in fish tank substrate, we’ve reared the tissue-cultured stock indoors as emergent plants in sandy soil and shallow water through the winter and early spring.  When it warms up, we transplant them into the edges of the outdoor ponds to naturalize.  As a habit, we always grow some Cardinal Flower plants in the fish tanks to take up the nitrates in the water and to provide a continuous supply of cuttings for starting more emergent stock for outdoor use.

Tissue culture Cardinal Flower being grown as a submerged aquatic in a fish aquarium.
A tissue-cultured Cardinal Flower rooted in sandy substrate and being grown as a submerged aquatic plant in a fish tank.  Cuttings from this plant will be used to grow emergent specimens in shallow water for transplanting outdoors around the garden pond.
Cardinal Flower from Tissue Culture
A Cardinal Flower grown from an aquarium store tissue culture blooms in the pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.
Cardinal Flower blooming in November.
Grown as an emergent, Cardinal Flower may bloom very late in the season.  This tissue-cultured specimen in the headquarters pond was photographed in early November, 2022.

Shorebirds and Stormwater Retention Ponds

Your best bet for finding migrating shorebirds in the lower Susquehanna region is certainly a visit to a sandbar or mudflat in the river.  The Conejohela Flats off Washington Boro just south of Columbia is a renowned location.  Some man-made lakes including the one at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area are purposely drawn down during the weeks of fall migration to provide exposed mud and silt for feeding and resting sandpipers and plovers.  But with the Susquehanna running high due to recent rains and the cost of fuel trending high as well, maybe you want to stay closer to home to do your observing.

Fortunately for us, migratory shorebirds will drop in on almost any biologically active pool of shallow water and mud that they happen to find.  This includes flooded portions of fields, construction sites, and especially stormwater retention basins.  We stopped by a new basin just west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and found more than two dozen shorebirds feeding and loafing there.  We took each of these photographs from the sidewalk paralleling the south shore of the pool, thus never flushing or disturbing a single bird.

Stormwater retentrion basin.
Designed to prevent stream flooding and pollution, this recently installed stormwater retention basin along US 322 west of Hershey, Pennsylvania, has already attracted a variety of migrating plovers and sandpipers.
Killdeer
Killdeer stick close to exposed mud as they feed.
Least Sandpipers
Two of more than a dozen Least Sandpipers found busily feeding in the inch-deep water.
Lesser Yellowlegs
A Lesser Yellowlegs searching for small invertebrates.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Two Lesser Yellowlegs work out a disagreement.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers.
Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrol the airspace above a pair of Least Sandpipers. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are quick to colonize the waters held in well-engineered retention basins.  Proper construction and establishment of a functioning food chain/web in these man-made wetlands prevents them from becoming merely temporary cesspools for breeding mosquitos.

So don’t just drive by those big puddles, stop and have a look.  You never know what you might find.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle right) joins a flock of Least Sandpipers.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.
Pectoral Sandpipers (two birds in the center) are regular fall migrants on the Susquehanna at this time of year.  They are most frequently seen on gravel and sand bars adjacent to the river’s grassy islands, but unusually high water for this time of year prevents them from using this favored habitat.  As a result, you might be lucky enough to discover Pectoral Sandpipers on almost any mudflat in the area.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller but very similar Least Sandpipers.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and five smaller, but otherwise very similar, Least Sandpipers.
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and a Least and Pectoral Sandpiper (left).
A Killdeer (right), a Semipalmated Plover (upper right), and Least and Pectoral Sandpipers (left).

Be on the Lookout: Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Those mid-summer post-breeding wanders continue to delight birders throughout the Mid-Atlantic States.  One colorful denizen of ponds and wetlands that has yet to put in an appearance in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed this year is the Black-bellied Whistling Duck.  You might remember this species from earlier posts describing the fortieth anniversary of your editor’s journey to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Like many other birds, the Black-bellied Whistling Duck has been extending its range north from Texas, Florida, and other states along the Gulf Coastal Plain.  Populations of these waterfowl are chiefly resident birds with some short-distance movement to find suitable habitat for feeding and nesting.  They are not usually migratory, so summertime wandering may be the mechanism for their discovery of new habitats advantageous for nesting in areas north of their current home.

Presently, at least two dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are being seen regularly at a stormwater retention pond in a housing subdivision along Amalfi Drive west of Smyrna, Delaware.  This small population of avian tourists has spent at least two summers in the area.  Just yesterday, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were seen and photographed about ten miles to the east at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  Nine were counted there while 27 were being watched simultaneously at the Amalfi site.  Earlier this week, a single Black-bellied Whistling Duck visited the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, indicating that the influx of these vagrants has transited the entire Delmarva Peninsula and entered Pennsylvania.  So while you’re out watching for those first southbound migrants of the year, be on the lookout for wayward wanderers too—wanderers like Black-bellied Whistling Ducks!

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a stormwater retention pond west of Smyrna, Delaware.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a stormwater retention pond west of Smyrna, Delaware.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Summertime exploration of new areas outside their resident turf may enable Black-bellied Whistling Ducks to find favorable habitats for extending their breeding range north.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks favor vegetated ponds, pools, and wetlands for feeding and nesting.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Did you remember to go to the post office and buy a Federal Duck Stamp?   Your purchase helps provide habitat for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and so many other magnificent birds.  And don’t forget, it’s your ticket for admission to our National Wildlife Refuges for an entire year!

Shorebirds and More at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp?  Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points.  Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States.  So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.

2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp. Your Federal Duck Stamp is your free pass to visit the nation's National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.
Your Federal Duck Stamp is your admission ticket for entry into many of the country’s National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.

Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money?  Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.  Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.

Northern Bobwhite
This pair of Northern Bobwhite, a species now extirpated from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and the rest of Pennsylvania, escorted us into the refuge.  At Bombay Hook, they don’t waste your money mowing grass.  Instead, a mosaic of warm-season grasses and early successional growth creates ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhite and other wildlife.
Shearness Pool at Bombay Hook N.W.R.
Twice each day, high tide inundates mudflats in the saltwater tidal marshes at Bombay Hook prompting shorebirds to move into the four man-made freshwater pools.  Birds there can often be observed at close range.  The auto tour route through the refuge primarily follows a path atop the dikes that create these freshwater pools.  Morning light is best when viewing birds on the freshwater side of the road, late-afternoon light is best for observing birds on the tidal saltwater side.
Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron at high tide on the edge of a tidal creek that borders Bombay Hook’s tour route at Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Semipalmated Sandpipers stream into Raymond Pool to escape the rising tide in the salt marsh.
Semipalmated Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitcher
More Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) arrive at Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers
Two more Short-billed Dowitchers on the way in.
Sandpipers, Avocets, Egrets, and Mallards
Recent rains have flooded some of the mudflats in Bombay Hook’s freshwater pools. During our visit, birds were often clustered in areas where bare ground was exposed or where water was shallow enough to feed.  Here, Short-billed Dowitchers in the foreground wade in deeper water to probe the bottom while Semipalmated Sandpipers arrive to feed along the pool’s edge.  Mallards, American Avocets, and egrets are gathered on the shore.
Short-billed Dowitchers
More Short-billed Dowitchers arriving to feed in Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers gathered in shallow water where mudflats are usually exposed during mid-summer in Raymond Pool.
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers, several Short-billed Dowitchers, and some Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) crowd onto a mud bar at Bear Swamp Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster's Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher
A zoomed-in view of the previous image showing a tightly packed crowd of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster’s Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher (upper left).
Short-billed Dowitchers
Short-billed Dowitchers wading to feed in the unusually high waters of Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret in Raymond Pool.  A single Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) can been seen flying near the top of the flock of dowitchers just below the egret.
Stilt Sandpiper among Short-billed Dowitchers
Zoomed-in view of a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), the bird with white wing linings.
American Avocets
American Avocets probe the muddy bottom of Raymond Pool.
Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers
Among these Short-billed Dowitchers, the second bird from the bottom is a Dunlin. This sandpiper, still in breeding plumage, is a little bit early.  Many migrating Dunlin linger at Bombay Hook into October and even November.
Least Sandpiper
This Least Sandpiper found a nice little feeding area all to itself at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool
Greater Yellowlegs
A Greater Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Caspian Tern
A Caspian Tern patrolling Raymond Pool.
Marsh Wren singing
The chattering notes of the Marsh Wren’s (Cistothorus palustris) song can be heard along the tour road wherever it borders tidal waters.
Marsh Wren Nest
This dome-shaped Marsh Wren nest is supported by the stems of Saltwater Cordgrass (Sporobolus alterniflorus), a plant also known as Smooth Cordgrass.  High tide licks at the roots of the cordgrass supporting the temporary domicile.
Seaside Dragonlet
By far the most common dragonfly at Bombay Hook is the Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice).  It is our only dragonfly able to breed in saltwater.  Seaside Dragonlets are in constant view along the impoundment dikes in the refuge.
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds are still nesting at Bombay Hook, probably tending a second brood.
Bobolink
Look up!   A migrating Bobolink passes over the dike at Shearness Pool.
Mute Swans and Canada Geese
Non-native Mute Swans and resident-type Canada Geese in the rain-swollen Shearness Pool.
Trumpeter Swans
A pair of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) as seen from the observation tower at Shearness Pool.  Unlike gregarious Tundra and Mute Swans, pairs of Trumpeter Swans prefer to nest alone, one pair to a pond, lake, or sluggish stretch of river.  The range of these enormous birds was restricted to western North America and their numbers were believed to be as low as 70 birds during the early twentieth century.  An isolated population consisting of several thousand birds was discovered in a remote area of Alaska during the 1930s allowing conservation practices to protect and restore their numbers.  Trumpeter Swans are slowly repopulating scattered east coast locations following recent re-introduction into suitable habitats in the Great Lakes region.
Great Egret
A Great Egret prowling Shearness Pool.
Snowy Egret
A Snowy Egret in Bear Swamp Pool.
A hen Wood Duck (second from right) escorts her young.
Wood Ducks in Bear Swamp Pool.
Black-necked Stilt and young.
A Bombay Hook N.W.R. specialty, a Black-necked Stilt and young at Bear Swamp Pool.

As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes.  Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects a vast parcel of tidal salt marsh and an extensive network of tidal creeks. These areas are not only essential wildlife habitat, but are critical components for maintaining water quality in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab
The shells of expired Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs were formerly widespread and common among the naturally occurring flotsam along the high tide line on Delaware Bay.  We found just this one during our visit to Bombay Hook.  Man has certainly decimated populations of this ancient crustacean during recent decades.
As the tide goes out, it’s a good time for a quick walk into the salt marsh on the boardwalk trail opposite Raymond Pool.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Among the Saltmarsh Cordgrass along the trail and on the banks of the tidal creek there, a visitor will find thousands and thousands of Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs (Minuca pugnax).
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs and their extensive system of burrows help prevent the compaction of tidal soils and thus help maintain ideal conditions for the pure stands of Saltwater Cordgrass that trap sediments and sequester nutrients in coastal wetlands.
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab
A male Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab peers from its den.
Great Egret
Herons and egrets including this Great Egret are quite fond of fiddler crabs.  As the tide goes out, many will venture away from the freshwater pools into the salt marshes to find them.
Green Heron
A Green Heron seen just before descending into the cordgrass to find fiddler crabs for dinner.
Clapper Rail
A juvenile Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans crepitans) emerges from the cover of the cordgrass along a tidal creek to search for a meal.
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis leave their high-tide hiding place in Shearness Pool to head out into the tidal marshes for the afternoon.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide in the marshes opposite Shearness Pool.
Ospey
An Osprey patrols the vast tidal areas opposite Shearness Pool.

No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Buntings nest in areas of successional growth and yes, that is a Spotted Lanternfly on the grape vine at the far right side of the image.
Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) are common nesting birds at Bombay Hook.  This one was in shrubby growth along the dike at the north end of Shearness Pool.
Trumpet Creeper and Poison Ivy
These two native vines are widespread at Bombay Hook and are an excellent source of food for birds. The orange flowers of the Trumpet Vine are a hummingbird favorite and the Poison Ivy provides berries for numerous species of wintering birds.
Pileated Woodpecker in Sweet Gum
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the numerous birds that supplements its diet with Poison Ivy berries.  The tree this individual is visiting is an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a species native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Delaware.  The seed balls are a favorite winter food of goldfinches and siskins.
Red-bellied Slider and Painted Turtle
Finis Pool has no frontage on the tidal marsh but is still worth a visit.  It lies along a spur road on the tour route and is located within a deciduous coastal plain forest.  Check the waters there for basking turtles like this giant Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubiventris) and much smaller Painted Turtle.
White-tailed Deity
The White-tailed Deity is common along the road to Finis Pool.
Fowler's Toad
Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) breed in the vernal ponds found in the vicinity of Finis Pool and elsewhere throughout the refuge.
Turk's Cap Lily
The National Wildlife Refuge System not only protects animal species, it sustains rare and unusual plants as well.  This beauty is a Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), a native wildflower of wet woods and swamps.
Wild Turkey
Just as quail led us into the refuge this morning, this Wild Turkey did us the courtesy of leading us to the way out in the afternoon.

We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon.  And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.

A Limpkin’s Journey to Pennsylvania: A Waffle House Serving Escargot at Every Exit

Mid-summer can be a less than exciting time for those who like to observe wild birds.  The songs of spring gradually grow silent as young birds leave the nest and preoccupy their parents with the chore of gathering enough food to satisfy their ballooning appetites.  To avoid predators, roving families of many species remain hidden and as inconspicuous as possible while the young birds learn how to find food and handle the dangers of the world.

But all is not lost.  There are two opportunities for seeing unique birds during the hot and humid days of July.

First, many shorebirds such as sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and godwits begin moving south from breeding grounds in Canada.  That’s right, fall migration starts during the first days of summer, right where spring migration left off.  The earliest arrivals are primarily birds that for one reason on another (age, weather, food availability) did not nest this year.  These individuals will be followed by birds that completed their breeding cycles early or experienced nest failures.  Finally, adults and juveniles from successful nests are on their way to the wintering grounds, extending the movement into the months we more traditionally start to associate with fall migration—late August into October.

For those of you who find identifying shorebirds more of a labor than a pleasure, I get it.  For you, July can bring a special treat—post-breeding wanderers.  Post-breeding wanderers are birds we find roaming in directions other than south during the summer months, after the nesting cycle is complete.  This behavior is known as “post-breeding dispersal”.  Even though we often have no way of telling for sure that a wandering bird did indeed begin its roving journey after either being a parent or a fledgling during the preceding nesting season, the term post-breeding wanderer still applies.  It’s a title based more on a bird sighting and it’s time and place than upon the life cycle of the bird(s) being observed.  Post-breeding wanderers are often southern species that show up hundreds of miles outside there usual range, sometimes traveling in groups and lingering in an adopted area until the cooler weather of fall finally prompts them to go back home.  Many are birds associated with aquatic habitats such as shores, marshes, and rivers, so water levels and their impact on the birds’ food supplies within their home range may be the motivation for some of these movements.  What makes post-breeding wanderers a favorite among many birders is their pop.  They are often some of our largest, most colorful, or most sought-after species.  Birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, stilts, avocets, terns, and raptors are showy and attract a crowd.

While it’s often impossible to predict exactly which species, if any, will disperse from their typical breeding range in a significant way during a given year, some seem to roam with regularity.  Perhaps the most consistent and certainly the earliest post-breeding wanderer to visit our region is the “Florida Bald Eagle”.  Bald Eagles nest in “The Sunshine State” beginning in the fall, so by early spring, many of their young are on their own.   By mid-spring, many of these eagles begin cruising north, some passing into the lower Susquehanna valley and beyond.  Gatherings of dozens of adult Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam during April and May, while our local adults are nesting and after the wintering birds have gone north, probably include numerous post-breeding wanderers from Florida and other Gulf Coast States.

So this week, what exactly was it that prompted hundreds of birders to travel to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from all over the Mid-Atlantic States and from as far away as Colorado?

Birders observing something special at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on July 10, 2023.

Was it the majestic Great Blue Herons and playful Killdeer?

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron and a Killdeer.

Was it the colorful Green Herons?

Green Heron
Green Heron

Was it the Great Egrets snapping small fish from the shallows?

Great Egret
Great Egret

Was it the small flocks of shorebirds like these Least Sandpipers beginning to trickle south from Canada?

Least Sandpipers
Least Sandpipers

All very nice, but not the inspiration for traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see a bird.

It was the appearance of this very rare post-breeding wanderer…

Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
A Limpkin at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County.  The Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is the only surviving member of the family Aramidae.

…Pennsylvania’s first record of a Limpkin, a tropical wading bird native to Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and South America.  Many observers visiting Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area had never seen one before, so if they happen to be a “lister”, a birder who keeps a tally of the wild bird species they’ve seen, this Limpkin was a “lifer”.

The Limpkin is an inhabitant of vegetated marshlands where it feeds almost exclusively upon large snails of the family Ampullariidae, including the Florida Applesnail (Pomacea paludosa), the largest native freshwater snail in the United States.

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
In the United States, the native range of the Limpkin lies within the native range of the Florida Applesnail, shown here in gold.  Introduced populations of the snail are shown in brown.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)
A spectacular nineteenth-century rendition of the Florida Applesnail, including an egg mass, illustrated by Helen E. Lawson in Samuel S. Haldeman’s “Monograph of the Freshwater Univalve Mollusca of the United States”.

Observations of the Limpkin lingering at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area have revealed a pair of interesting facts.  First, in the absence of Florida Applesnails, this particular Limpkin has found a substitute food source, the non-native Chinese Mystery Snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis).  And second, Chinese Mystery Snails have recently become established in the lakes, pools, and ponds at the refuge, very likely arriving as stowaways on Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) and/or American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea), native transplants brought in during recent years to improve wetland habitat and process the abundance of nutrients (including waterfowl waste) in the water.

A Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Chinese Mystery Snail is the largest freshwater snail in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
By hitching a ride on aquatic transplants like this Spatterdock, non-native freshwater snails are easily vectored into new areas outside their previous range.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily.
Spatterdock, a native species also known as Yellow Pond Lily or Cow Lily, flowering in August.
American Lotus in flower at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Blooming American Lotus transplants in a pool at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area during August.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek W.M.A. capturing a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
The Limpkin at Middle Creek carrying a Chinese Mystery Snail.
Limpkin holding Chinese Mystery Snail
The Limpkin is seen here maneuvering the the snail in its bill, a set of mandibles specially adapted for extracting the bodies of large freshwater snails from their shells.
Limpkin Grasping Chinese Mystery Snail
The tweezers-like tip of the bill is used to grasp the shell by the rim of the opening or by the “trapdoor” (operculum) that protects the snail inside.
Chinese Mystery Snail
A posed Chinese Mystery Snail showing its “trapdoor”, the operculum protecting the soft body tissue when the animal withdraws inside.  The tips of the Limpkin’s bill close tightly like the end of a tweezers to grasp the operculum and remove it and the snail’s body from the shell.  (Vintage 35 mm image)
Limpkin Removing Chinese Mystery Snail from Shell
The tweezers-tipped bill, which is curved slightly to the right in some Limpkins, is slid into the shell to grasp the snails body and remove it for consumption.  The entire extraction process takes 10 to 30 seconds.

The Middle Creek Limpkin’s affinity for Chinese Mystery Snails may help explain how it was able to find its way to Pennsylvania in apparent good health.  Look again at the map showing the range of the Limpkin’s primary native food source, the Florida Applesnail.  Note that there are established populations (shown in brown) where these snails were introduced along the northern coast of Georgia and southern coast of South Carolina…

Native and Non-native Range of Florida Applesnail
Native (gold) and non-native (brown) ranges of the Florida Applesnail.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…now look at the latest U.S.G.S. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species map showing the ranges (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails…

Range (in brown) of established populations of non-native Chinese Mystery Snails.  (United States Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species image)

…and now imagine that you’re a happy-go-lucky Limpkin working your way up the Atlantic Coastal Plain toward Pennsylvania and taking advantage of the abundance of food and sunshine that summer brings to the northern latitudes.  It’s a new frontier.  Introduced populations of Chinese Mystery Snails are like having a Waffle House serving escargot at every exit along the way!

Be sure to click the “Freshwater Snails” tab at the top of this page to learn more about the Chinese Mystery Snail and its arrival in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Once there, you’ll find some additional commentary about the Limpkin and the likelihood of Everglade Snail Kites taking advantage of the presence of Chinese Mystery Snails to wander north.  Be certain to check it out.

Everglade Snail Kite
The endangered Everglade Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus), a Florida Applesnail specialist, has survived in part due to its ability to adapt to eating the non-native Pomacea maculata applesnails which have become widespread in Florida following releases from aquaria.  The adaptation?…a larger body and bill for eating larger snails.  (National Park Service image)

A Few Plants with Wildlife Impact in June

Here’s a look at some native plants you can grow in your garden to really help wildlife in late spring and early summer.

The Larger Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) in flower in mid-June.
The showy bloom of a Larger Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and the drooping inflorescence of Soft Rush (Juncus effusus).  These plants favor moist soils in wetlands and damp meadows where they form essential cover and feeding areas for insects, amphibians, and marsh birds.  Each is an excellent choice for helping to absorb nutrients in a rain garden or stream-side planting.  They do well in wet soil or shallow water along the edges of garden ponds too.
Smooth Shadbush
The fruits of Smooth Shadbush (Amelanchier laevis), also known as Allegheny Serviceberry, Smooth Serviceberry, or Smooth Juneberry, ripen in mid-June and are an irresistible treat for catbirds, robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and roving flocks of Cedar Waxwings.
Common Milkweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
Also in mid-June, the fragrant blooms of Common Milkweed attract pollinators like Eastern Carpenter Bees,…
Common Milkweed and Honey Bee
…Honey Bees,…
Common Milkweed and Banded Hairstreak
…and butterflies including the Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus).  In coming weeks, Monarch butterflies will find these Common Milkweed plants and begin laying their eggs on the leaves.  You can lend them a hand by planting milkweed species (Asclepias) in your garden.  Then watch the show as the eggs hatch and the caterpillars begin devouring the foliage.  Soon, they’ll pupate and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch an adult Monarch emerge from a chrysalis!

Termite Terminators

With temperatures on the rise in this morning’s bright sunshine, a flight of Eastern Subterranean Termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) streamed from the shelter of this tree snag to ascend skyward in a spreading cloud of kings and queens looking to start new colonies of wood chompers.

Eastern Subterranean Termites swarming.
A nuptial flight of Eastern Subterranean Termites taking to the wing after ascending a dead tree alongside a small pond.

As the swarm cleared the treetops, it immediately attracted the attention of some recently-arrived migratory birds…

Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts Attack an Ant Swarm
Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts seized the opportunity to devour an easy meal…hundreds of flying termites.  Their timing was perfect.  The first Barn swallows of the season arrived here just two days ago, the first appearance of the swifts was concurrent with this morning’s swarm.
Barn Swallow and Chimney Swifts
Our squadron of predators quickly devoured the airborne insects.  The entire event was concluded in just five minutes.

Hidden Surprises

If you’re like us, you’re forgoing this year’s egg hunt due to the prices, and, well, because you’re a little bit too old for such a thing.

Instead, we took a closer look at some of our wildlife photographs from earlier in the week.  We’ve learned from experience that we don’t always see the finer details through the viewfinder, so it often pays to give each shot a second glance on a full-size screen.  Here are a few of our images that contained some hidden surprises.


Blue-winged Teal and American Black Ducks
We photographed these Blue-winged Teal and American Black Ducks as they were feeding in a meadow wetland…

..but upon closer inspection we located…

Common Green Darner
…a Common Green Darner patrolling for mosquitoes and other prey.  The Common Green Darner is a migratory species of dragonfly.  After mating, they deposit their eggs in wetland pools, ponds, and slow-moving streams.

Water Strider
We photographed this Water Strider as it was “walking” across a pool in a small stream that meanders through a marshy meadow…

..but after zooming in a little closer we found…

Water Strider with a Mosquito
…a mosquito coming to deposit its eggs had been seized as a mid-day meal.   Look at how the legs of the Water Strider use the surface tension of the pool to allow it to “walk on water”, even while clutching and subduing its prey.

Canada Geese
We photographed these resident Canada Geese in a small plowed cornfield in an area managed mostly as a mix of cool-season and warm-season grassland…

..but then, following further examination, we discovered…

Ring-necked Pheasant
…a hen Ring-necked Pheasant on a nest.

THE BAD EGG

Red-winged Blackbirds
We photographed this small group of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds while it was feeding among corn stubble in a plowed field…

…but a careful search of the flock revealed…

Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds
…three female Brown-headed Cowbirds among them (the unstreaked brown birds, two to the far left and one among the “red-wings” to the right).  Cowbirds practice nest parasitism as a means of putting their young up for adoption.  Red-winged Blackbirds and numerous other species are the unknowing victims.  The female cowbird discreetly deposits her egg(s) in the adopting party’s nest and abandons it.  The cowbird egg and the hatchling that follows is cared for by the victim species, often at the expense of their own young.

Underwater View of Life in a Vernal Pool

It may look like just a puddle in the woods, but this is a very specialized wetland habitat, a habitat that is quickly disappearing from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  It’s a vernal pool—also known as a vernal pond or an ephemeral (lasting a short time) pool or pond.

Viable vernal pools have several traits in common…

      • They contain water in the spring (hence the name vernal).
      • They have no permanent inflow or outflow of water.
      • They typically dry up during part of the year—usually in late summer.
      • They are fish-free.
      • They provide breeding habitat for certain indicator species of forest-dwelling amphibians and other animals.
      • They are surrounded by forest habitat that supports the amphibians and other vernal pool species during the terrestrial portion of their life cycle.

To have a closer look at what is presently living in this “black leaf” vernal pool, we’re calling on the crew of the S. S. Haldeman to go down under and investigate.

Along the surface of the pool we’re seeing clusters of amphibian eggs, a sign that this pond has been visited by breeding adult frogs and/or salamanders during recent weeks.
Amphibian eggs and the white tail filaments of an invertebrate of interest, Springtime Fairy Shrimp (Eubranchipus vernalis), an endemic of vernal ponds.

Let’s take it down for a better look.  Dive, all dive!

Algae provides food for the shrimp and other inhabitants of the pool.  Leaf litter furnishes hiding places for the pool’s many inhabitants.
These loose clusters of eggs appears to be those of Wood Frogs, a vernal pool indicator species.
Clusters of Wood Frog eggs, the embryos within those in the center of the image less developed than those to the left.
More Wood Frog eggs.  Hatching can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, depending on temperature.
Wood Frog eggs with developing larvae (tadpoles) plainly visible.  The green color of the eggs is created by a symbiotic algae, Oophila amblystomatis, a species unique to vernal pools.  The algae utilizes the waste produced by the developing embryos to fuel its growth and in return releases oxygen into the water during photosynthesis.  Upon hatching, the tadpoles rely upon the algae as one of their principle food sources.
A zoomed-in view showing development of the larvae and what appears to be a tiny invertebrate clinging on the white egg in the upper right.  White eggs don’t hatch and may be infected by a fungus.
Wood Frog eggs and Springtime Fairy Shrimp.
Wood Frog eggs and Springtime Fairy Shrimp.
Springtime Fairy Shrimp swim upside-down.  Note the small, bluish clusters of eggs attached to the abdomens of these females.  Springtime Fairy Shrimp live their entire lives in the vernal pool.  After being deposited in the debris at the bottom of the pool, the eggs will dry out during the summer, then freeze and re-hydrate before hatching during the late winter.
A damselfly larva consuming fairy shrimp.  (Visible in the margin between the uppermost lobes of the dark-colored oak leaf to the right.)
Getting in close we see A) the damselfly larva eating a Springtime Fairy Shrimp and B) one of several discarded exoskeletons of consumed shrimp near this predator.
A fishfly larva (Chauliodinae).  Mosquito numbers are kept in check by the abundance of predators in these pools.
Springtime Fairy Shrimp and a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) larva.  The presence of these species confirms this small body of water is a fully-functioning vernal pool.
Springtime Fairy Shrimp and two more larval Marbled Salamanders.  The salamanders’ enlarged gills are necessary to extract sufficient oxygen from the still waters of the pool.
The Marbled Salamander is one of three species of mole salamanders found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  All breed in vernal pools and live their air-breathing adult lives under the leaves of the forest in subterranean tunnels where they feed on worms and other invertebrates.  Photos of an adult Marbled Salamander and the other two species, Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), can be found by clicking the “Amphibians” tab at the top of this page.
Marbled Salamanders lay their eggs during the fall.  If the bed of the pool is dry at breeding time, the adult female will remain to guard the eggs until rain floods the pool.  The eggs hatch upon inundation, sometimes during the winter.
Marbled Salamanders, like all amphibians that develop in vernal pools, must complete transformation into their air-breathing terrestrial life stage before the pool dries up in the summer heat.
A larval Marbled Salamander explores the bottom of the pool.
A larval Marbled Salamander, Wood Frog eggs, and Springtime Fairy Shrimp, it’s an abundance of life in what at first glance may appear to be just a mud puddle.

We hope you enjoyed this quick look at life in a vernal pool.  While the crew of the S. S. Haldeman decontaminates the vessel (we always scrub and disinfect the ship before moving between bodies of water) and prepares for its next voyage, you can learn more about vernal pools and the forest ecosystems of which they are such a vital component.  Be sure to check out…

If you are a landowner or a land manager, you can find materials specifically providing guidance for protecting, restoring, and re-establishing vernal pool habitats at…

Wood Frogs mating
Wasted Effort-A pair of Wood Frogs mating in a dried-up vernal pool.

Migratory Waterfowl on Local Ponds and Lakes

Following the deep freeze of a week ago, temperatures soaring into the fifties and sixties during recent days have brought to mind thoughts of spring.  In the pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, Green Frogs are again out and about.

Green Frogs
A pair of Green Frogs seen today alongside the headquarters pond.  A sign of spring?

But is this really an early spring?  Migrating waterfowl indicate otherwise.  Having been forced south from the Great Lakes during the bitter cold snap, a variety of our tardy web-footed friends belatedly arrived on the river and on the Susquehanna Flats of upper Chesapeake Bay about ten days ago.  Now, rising water from snow melt and this week’s rains have forced many of these ducks onto local lakes and ponds where ice coverage has been all but eliminated by the mild weather.  For the most part, these are lingering autumn migrants.  Here’s a sample of some of the waterfowl seen during a tour of the area today…

Snow Geese
Like other late-season migrants, Snow Geese take advantage of open water on area lakes until ice forces them south to the Atlantic Coastal Plain.  In a little more than a month from now, they’ll begin working their way north again.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Tundra Swans and American Black Ducks loafing on an ice-free lake.
Mute Swans
The non-native Mute Swan has become an invasive species.  Because they are predominantly non-migratory, groups of Mute Swans congregating in valuable wetland habitat can decimate these aquatic ecosystems with their persistent year-round feeding.  Their long necks help them consume enormous quantities of benthic foods that would otherwise be available to migratory diving ducks during their autumn and spring stopovers.
Gadwalls
Small flocks of Gadwalls will sometimes spend the winter on ice-free vegetated ponds in the lower Susquehanna region.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.
A mixed flock of diving ducks on a small lake.  Let’s take a closer look!
Redheads, Lesser Scaup, and Canvasback
Six Redheads, three Lesser Scaup (top row left), and a Canvasback (upper right).
Redheads
Redheads.
Buffleheads
Buffleheads.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
An adult male Lesser Scaup.
Lesser Scaup
A female (right) and a first-winter male (left) Lesser Scaup.
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck
Canvasbacks and a Ruddy Duck.

With the worst of winter’s fury still to come, it’s time to say farewell to most of these travelers for a little while.  With a little luck, we’ll see them again in March or April.

Striped Skunk
Our official susquehannawildlife.net prognosticator climbed out of its winter hideout today to have a look around.   Then, without hesitation, the forecast for 2023 was issued, “Winter Stinks!”

Photo of the Day

Shadow Darner
If you happen to see a large dark dragonfly cruising around on a sunny November afternoon, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a Shadow Darner.  These hardy odonates often persist even after the flights of migratory species have ended for the year.  Shadow Darners are particularly fond of patrolling the shady edges of woodlands where they snag insects and devour them in midair.  Though they are most often found breeding in beaver ponds and other quiet waters, we’ve had them successfully reproduce in the fish-free frog and tadpole pond at susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.

Photo of the Day

Vallisneria "Pearling" as it Produces Oxygen
Submersed aquatic plants in streams, lakes, ponds, bays, and estuaries do more than take up nutrients and provide habitat for fish and other organisms, they produce oxygen during photosynthesis.  Here we see tapegrass (Vallisneria) in bright sunlight releasing a visible string of oxygen bubbles, an emission known as “pearling”.  British chemist, theologian, and philosopher Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), who spent his final decade residing along the Susquehanna in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, isolated oxygen during experiments in 1774 by exposing mercuric oxide to direct sunlight.  During the following year, Priestly published his findings in “An Account of Further Discoveries in Air”, describing what he called “dephlogisticated air”, the gas later named oxygen.  To observe and record the effects of pure oxygen in the absence of atmospheric air, Priestly first tested it on a mouse, then breathed it himself.

Photo of the Day

Freshwater Bryozoan Colony (Pectinatella magnifica) and an Eastern Amberwing
Those who happen to come upon it might think this football-sized gelatinous blob is a sure sign of pollution.  A freshwater bryozoan (Pectinatella magnifica) colony is composed of a single microscopic founder and its many clones.  Despite its bizarre appearance, the “moss animal” is an indicator of good water quality.  Pectinatella magnifica is found in clear lentic (still) waters of streams, lakes, and ponds where each individual in the colony feeds by extending a disk of sticky tentacles, called a lophophore, from within its protective sheath to capture single-celled algae (e.g., diatoms) and other plankton.  From now through autumn, these bryozoans are reproducing by means of cell-filled statoblasts, durable little seedlike pods which can survive the harsh conditions of both winter and drought and sometimes be transported by animals, wind, or water currents to new areas.  Spring weather and/or rehydration of a dried-up lentic pool stimulates a statoblast to open, the cells contained therein then develop into a zooid that attempts to start a new colony by cloning itself.

Photo of the Day

Zabulon Skipper on Pickerelweed
A female Zabulon Skipper visits a cluster of Pickerelweed blossoms.  The Zabulon Skipper is a small butterfly of our streamsides, riversides, damp meadows, and other moist grassy spaces.  The Pickerelweed is an emergent plant of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.  Add it to your next project to improve water quality and help pollinators like the Zabulon Skipper.  You may even attract a hummingbird or two!   

Photo of the Day

Gray Catbird and Black Chokeberry
The fruits of a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) prove irresistible to this Gray Catbird.  Chokeberry is a native clump-forming shrub that reaches a height of less than ten feet.  It is tolerant of wet soils and makes a good choice for inclusion in plantings alongside streams and ponds, as well as in rain gardens.  Springtime clusters of white flowers yield berries by this time each summer.  By turning red as the fruits ripen, the foliage helps attract not only catbirds, but robins, waxwings, and other species that, in exchange for a meal, will assure dispersal of the plant’s seeds in their droppings.  With considerable sweetening, tart chokeberries can be used for juicing and the creation of jams, jellies, and preserves.

Photo of the Day

Buttonbush flower cluster
Is it the latest image from NASA’s new Webb Space Telescope?  Nope, it’s the globular flower cluster of the Buttonbush, a native shrub species found throughout the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  Buttonbush thrives in wet soil and seldom grows taller than 10 feet in height.  Try it along stream banks, in stormwater retention basins, and in rain gardens fed by surface runoff or the outflow from your downspouts.

Photo of the Day

Pickerelweed and Eastern Carpenter Bee
An Eastern Carpenter Bee visits the flowers of an emergent Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  Each Pickerelweed blossom has conspicuous yellow spots on its uppermost petal, an adaptation shared with the Great Rhododendrons featured in a post earlier this month (July 1).  For each of these species the purpose of these pollen look-a-likes is the same, to attract bees to the pistils and stamens of the flower.  Do these lures work?  Just take a look at the pollen accumulated on the rear leg of this bee.

Photo of the Day

Damselflies and dragonflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Fragile Forktail
Fragile Forktail damselflies have matured from their aquatic nymphal stage (see “Photo of the Day” from April 24, 2022) into flying adults.  This breeding pair in the “wheel position”, male above and female below, were photographed this week along the edge of the pond at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  You can identify the odonates you see during coming weeks by clicking the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.  There, a gallery of images that includes the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s most frequently encountered species will be at your fingertips for easy perusal.

Photo of the Day

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Fragile Forktail nymph
The aquatic larval stage of a damselfly is commonly known as a nymph.  It feeds on small underwater invertebrates, then, as an adult, transitions to grabbing flying insects in midair.  While many species inhabit streams, Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita) nymphs are found primarily in wetlands and small pools of water. This one was produced from eggs laid last summer among submerged vegetation in the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters pond.  In just a few weeks, it will climb a stem or cluster of leaves and transform into a colorful adult-stage damselfly known as an imago.  To see a photo gallery featuring this and other species of odonates found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, click on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.

Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

Photo of the Day

Swamp Sparrows can be found year-round in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed. They seldom occur far from water, this one spending its time in a dense stand of Common Cattails (Typha latifolia).

Photo of the Day

The shade-loving Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) is a common species of resident dragonfly in the lower Susquehanna basin.  Females deposit their eggs on aquatic vegetation in clean still waters, including those found in marshy sections of streams, beaver ponds, and even, on occasion, garden pools, as long as they aren’t overpopulated with large fish.  Shadow Darners are the most likely of the dragonflies to be noticed cruising in search of prey at dusk and are the last to be seen during the season, sometimes still found hawking small insects on warm days in November.  As you may have guessed, they are quite fond of consuming mosquitoes.

Forest vs. Woodlot

Let’s take a quiet stroll through the forest to have a look around.  The spring awakening is underway and it’s a marvelous thing to behold.  You may think it a bit odd, but during this walk we’re not going to spend all of our time gazing up into the trees.  Instead, we’re going to investigate the happenings at ground level—life on the forest floor.

Rotting logs and leaf litter create the moisture retaining detritus in which mesic forest plants grow and thrive.  Note the presence of mosses and a vernal pool in this damp section of forest.
The earliest green leaves in the forest are often those of the Skunk Cabbage (Simplocarpus foetidus).  This member of the arum family gets a head start by growing in the warm waters of a spring seep or in a stream-fed wetland.  Like many native wildflowers of the forest, Skunk Cabbage takes advantage of early-springtime sun to flower and grow prior to the time in late April when deciduous trees grow foliage and cast shade beneath their canopy.
Among the bark of dead and downed trees, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) hibernates for the winter.  It emerges to alight on sun-drenched surfaces in late winter and early spring.
Another hibernating forest butterfly that emerges on sunny early-spring days is the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), also known as the Hop Merchant.
In a small forest brook, a water strider (Gerridae) chases its shadow using the surface tension of the water to provide buoyancy.  Forests are essential for the protection of headwaters areas where our streams get their start.
Often flooded only in the springtime, fish-free pools of water known as vernal ponds are essential breeding habitat for many forest-dwelling amphibians.  Unfortunately, these ephemeral wetland sites often fall prey to collecting, dumping, filling, and vandalism by motorized and non-motorized off-roaders, sometimes resulting in the elimination of the populations of frogs, toads, and salamanders that use them.
Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) emerge from hiding places among downed timber and leaf litter to journey to a nearby vernal pond where they begin calling still more Wood Frogs to the breeding site.
Wood Frog eggs must hatch and tadpoles must transform into terrestrial frogs before the pond dries up in the summertime.  It’s a risky means of reproduction, but it effectively evades the enormous appetites of fish.
When the egg laying is complete, adult Wood Frogs return to the forest and are seldom seen during the rest of the year.
In early spring, Painted Turtles emerge from hideouts in larger forest pools, particularly those in wooded swamps, to bask in sunny locations.
Dead standing trees, often called snags, are essential habitats for many species of forest wildlife.  There is an entire biological process, a micro-ecosystem, involved in the decay of a dead tree.  It includes fungi, bacteria, and various invertebrate animals that reduce wood into the detritus that nourishes and hydrates new forest growth.
Birds like this Red-headed Woodpecker feed on insects found in large snags and nest almost exclusively in them.  Many species of wildlife rely on dead trees, both standing and fallen, during all or part of their lives.

There certainly is more to a forest than the living trees.  If you’re hiking through a grove of timber getting snared in a maze of prickly Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) and seeing little else but maybe a wild ungulate or two, then you’re in a has-been forest.  Logging, firewood collection, fragmentation, and other man-made disturbances inside and near forests take a collective toll on their composition, eventually turning them to mere woodlots.  Go enjoy the forests of the lower Susquehanna valley while you still can.  And remember to do it gently; we’re losing quality as well as quantity right now—so tread softly.

The White-tailed Deity in a woodlot infested by invasive tangles of Multiflora Rose.

Saharan Dust Cloud: Out of the Loop

Dust continues to be carried aloft on dry updrafts over the Sahara Desert.  The plume is presently stretching for thousands of miles due west across the tropical Atlantic into the Pacific, leaving the United States out of the loop—at least for now.

(CIRA/NOAA image)

With no dry air to spoil the fun, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream off the coast of North Carolina are spawning some convective clouds in a low pressure system that could become tropical within the next day or so.

Tropical or not, it looks like a rainy weekend along the Mid-Atlantic coast.  (CIRA/NOAA image)

Now that the heat and humidity is upon us, why not get out and take a look at the damselflies and dragonflies that inhabit the ponds, wetlands, and waterways of the lower Susquehanna watershed?  These flying insects thrive in sultry weather and some species will breed in a body of water as small as a garden pond—as long as it is free of large fish.  Check out some of the species found locally by clicking on the “Damselflies and Dragonflies” tab at the top of this page.  We’ll be adding more photos and species soon.

A Halloween Pennant.  Ooh, scary.